The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Terror Tract (2000)

For someone like me, what’s better than an obscure horror anthology movie? An obscure horror anthology movie starring the late and much missed John Ritter, of course.

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The idea for Terror Tract is frankly pretty brilliant, at least by straight-to-video horror anthology standards. Terror Tract doesn’t just have a framing story or one or two installments that unfold in a high-end suburb, but it’s all about the possible horrors lurking in a prim bedroom community. In fact, our horror host isn’t a crypt keeper or a chief of staff in an insane asylum. It’s a hapless real estate agent, Bob, who just wants to sell a house. Too bad every house he tries to sell to a young, affluent, and recently married couple, the Doyles (Allison Smith and David DeLuise), just happens to have a very recent and very violent history.

The first house Bob shows his guests belonged to an old, rich businessman and his younger wife. Since this is a horror anthology, of course, the wife (Kim Correll) is having an affair with a buff, handsome young man (Carmine Giovinazzo). As a matter of course, the husband traps them in the act and already has an elaborate plan to murder them both and make it look like a murder-suicide, but the scheme backfires and the husband ends up dead. Afraid that the cops will instantly drag them off in cuffs, the couple chuck their would-be killer’s body in a lake. Unfortunately, they make a couple of boo-boos in the course of covering up their incriminating act of self-defense, even as the not-grieving widow has vivid nightmares of her husband returning from his watery grave.

When the Doyles sour on the house after Bob’s tale, he tries to warm them up to another place. It’s another beautiful house, and Bob, true to realtor’s ethics, has to admit this house, too, has a sordid past. It used to be home to a dad, Ron (Bryan Cranston!), who was dedicated to his very young daughter. But then, their relationship goes off when his daughter takes in a very weird pet, Bobo, a monkey in an old-timey organ grinder uniform. Unfortunately, Bobo has a bit of a violent streak, even more of one than you’d expect from even a stray monkey…

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The prospect of the cute but inexplicably deadly monkey returning home puts a damper on things, so Ron shows the Doyles a third house. This one doesn’t quite have a grim history, but what it did have was a resident who was a teenage psychic, Sean (Will Estes). Unfortunately, his visions are all related to a suburban serial killer, the “Granny Killer”, not named because they kill grannies but because they commit their murders while wearing the mask of an elderly woman. Sean does what any rich suburbanite teen does and sees a therapist, Dr. Corey (Brenda Strong). Is Sean actually seeing through the eyes of a really bizarre murderer? Or is Dr. Corey’s sinking suspicion that Sean might have some kind of dangerous split personality correct?

Well, I should jump to the chase and admit that I prefer Future Shock as far as obscure, low-budget anthology movies go. Sure, Future Shock has worse production values and less consistent writing. But whatever the flaws on the screenwriting level with Future Shock, the stories gave me more of an impression. That’s not to say the three tales Terror Tract offers are bad; they just feel like they were taken out of the oven a bit too soon. (At least both movies do have an inexplicable violent sequence displaying the food chain with birds and housecats. In that regard, they both deliver.)

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The first story does offer an interesting twist on an age-old horror anthology staple you can trace all the way back to the original Tales from the Crypt comics: the adulterous couple getting their comeuppance/the cruel husband taking revenge on the adulterous couple getting his comeuppance. It’s interesting enough that I won’t spoil it here. Also, it’s my favorite of the three, but even then the story does rather hobble itself with its ending, implying a supernatural element to the proceedings that actually ends up detracting from the twist.

At least it’s an improvement over the third story where there is arguably no twist, even though it’s the sort of story that begs for one. We learn that, no, Sean is not the Granny Killer. In fact, while we learn who the Granny Killer isn’t, we never learn who she or he is or why Sean has a psychic connection to them. Of course, it’s fine for a story to not answer every question it raises or leave some deliberate mystery. Here, though, it just comes across that the story wasn’t finished or was part of a longer narrative we don’t get to see. What we do get—Sean trying to save Dr. Corey, who he knew would be the Granny Killer’s next victim, but not only failing but getting himself killed in the process—is pretty damn bleak. Well, okay, that’s definitely not a fair complaint about a horror story, but in the context of the mystery surrounding both Sean’s psychic connection to the killer and the identity of the Granny Killer, it’s a bleakness that is, in this case, unsatisfying.

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But the centerpiece of the anthology for obvious reasons is Bryan Cranston versus the small, cute monkey. As goofy as I make the premise sound, it’s done fairly well if a bit too seriously for its own good. The absurdity of the threat, which I understand was the point, was still at times hard to handle (at one point, we see the monkey that can effortlessly escape cages and kill a dog ten times its size happily tucked into a baby carriage). Bryan Cranston actually does give it his all and the child actor here actually is quite good, at least by child-actors-in-low-budget-movies standards. Still, though, the central motif, a loving father whose relationship with his daughter is ruined by “competition” from a menacing pet who poses a threat only he understands, just doesn’t really land. Maybe the story would have been easier to pitch to the audience if it was left more ambiguous whether the threat was real or just a psychotic break on the part of the father, or if the daughter was older and thus could display an attachment to the pet that’s more complex than just a small kid’s exuberance. Or maybe they just shouldn’t have had the deadly menace be a small monkey.

While the stories left me lukewarm, I actually absolutely adored the framing story. I can’t imagine anyone being more perfect for the role than John Ritter from the blandly pleasant start to the chaotically bloody finish. The over-the-top climax, which brings new meaning to the term “suburban hell”, is absolute black comedy gold. So, for that reason alone, I still do recommend Terror Tract, which as of this writing is up on YouTube. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you instead find the cake on the outside more satisfying than the filling.

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Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Future Shock (1994) (a.k.a. the “Satan’s Slut” movie)

If in the mid-late ’90s you watched a lot of movies over the weekend on USA Network (like me), you may recall being exposed to a quirky horror/sci-fi anthology film titled Future Shock. But, like me, you might not have even remembered the actual title of the film, instead only recalling a memorial scene where a shy, uptight man is driven to shout “Satan’s slut!” in recognition at seeing a woman’s dead body. Indeed, if you’re even more like me, you might have thought that the line “Satan’s slut!” was said multiple times, which, sadly, isn’t the case.

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If not that, you might know this movie for Vivian Schilling, the writer/director and star of Soultaker of MST3K notoriety and who stars in the first segment, “Jenny Porter”. And if not that, you might have heard this movie stars Bill Paxton in its second and most well-known segment, “The Roommate”, or that the third writer/director to contribute to this anthology through its last segment, “Mr. Petrified Forrest”, is Matt Reeves, who created the TV series Felicity, directed the modern Planet of the Apes films, and has recently been tapped to fire up a new Batman film franchise yet again.

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The narrative glue that brings this anthology together concerns Dr. Langdon (the hugely prolific Martin Kove), a psychologist who delves into the cutting edge of ’90s virtual reality for therapeutic purposes, treating his patients’ phobias and anxieties by subjecting them to intense and convincing false memories. Each of the anthology’s stories revolves around a different patient: a wealthy woman Jenny (Vivian Schilling) faces her fear of being home alone as she experiences being stalked by a mysterious wolf-like creature that defies even her paranoid security measures; a shy, neurotic, and easily intimidated morgue attendant George (Scott Thompson) gets stuck with the ultimate roommate from hell Vince (Bill Paxton), but things quickly get far more serious than just sleepless nights and late rent payments when George becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of Vince’s one-night stand, “Satan’s slut” (Timothi-Jane Graham); and a photographer Fred, after witnessing the sudden death of a close friend, has to choose between conquering his paranoia about death and a blossoming romantic relationship with a woman named Elfie (Pat Alexander)…that is, if he hasn’t already been marked by death itself.

As an anthology, it actually works quite well. The theme of being irrationally paralyzed by fear actually runs strongly through all three vignettes and the tone and quality remains consistent, although I do agree with the critical consensus—well, such as it is out there—that “Jenny Porter” is the best of the segments, especially in how it communicates a genuine feeling of helplessness and dread. It’s undermined a little by some constant shots of wolves and dogs where the story would have been better served by keeping the threat reduced to growls from an invisible source, but that’s a mild complaint for an otherwise genuinely well-presented and well-acted study of terror in isolation.

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But that’s not to say the other two segments are worth skipping; far from it. “The Roommate” is darkly funny from how Bill Paxton captures the spirit of a grown-up bully in the same mold as the thug who kicks sand in the skinny guy’s face at the beach to George’s boss, who is (mostly) mute and communicates his emotions and instructions through very grim facial expressions. And while “Mr. Petrified Forrest” is probably ill-fitting for what is to some degree a horror anthology, it does its work through some pretty effective storytelling, like a fairly subtle scene where Fred’s father nearly breaks through his son’s paranoia but he realizes some badly timed news has made his efforts futile. It also has some beautiful shots, from Fred slowly watching a small plane that crashed and is burning in someone’s front yard to him sitting in bed bathed in blue and surrounded by film stock, highlighting his fear and its consequences better than dialogue ever could. There isn’t much to say about the framing story about Dr. Langdon because it isn’t much of a story in of itself, although it does also have a genuinely funny section in which a staff member frightens away a couple of prospective patients by arguing about a previous patient who went insane from the virtual reality treatment on the phone.

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That said, there are some baffling creative choices here and there. There’s a bizarre sequence meant to communicate the idea of a “food chain” that involves a random man who is implied to have violently kicked a dog for no reason (!!). Also the ending, which sees Dr. Langdon apparently tempted by his own virtual reality device or questions his own sense of reality, and a brief scene where Jenny’s virtual reality experience is being observed by a group of doctors within the dream itself don’t really make sense and feel like remnants of an earlier draft of a script left in. This is somewhat supported by the fact that this movie had an indie comic book adaptation of all things, discussed by Linkara here, which does give more context to both the doctors and the ending with Dr. Langdon, but in my research I couldn’t verify if the comic is actually based on an earlier draft of the script, in which Dr. Langdon had much more sinister motives but was also himself a patient experiencing virtual reality, or if the comic was deliberately “dumbed down” for a stereotypical comic book readership or a little from column A and column B.

As for the movie itself, it doesn’t quite transcend its low budget, so it has an unpolished feel, which depending on your tastes is part of its charm or one of its flaws. Nor do all three of the segments seem to have been originally written for the virtual reality motif. Only “Jenny Porter” really feels as if it was intended for the framing story. “The Roommate” has a twist ending that really doesn’t make sense as part of George’s virtual reality experience while “The Petrified Mr. Forrest” has its own framing device of sorts, Fred having a near-death experience in Purgatory, which means in a way that the story is double framed. Again, though, the stories do share and effectively convey a common theme, which is more than can be said for a lot of movie anthologies.

While I’m more conscious of the flaws here than I was when I first saw the movie as a kid, I’m still very fond of it. It’s genuinely a solid anthology that I would still say is worth watching if you catch it on YouTube or dig up the DVD or VHS copy somewhere. This is even more true today, as it’s the sort of creative, low-budget movie that’s sadly an endangered species in our current era of mega-media monopolies and creatives who are spoiled by choice for potential platforms yet are starved of opportunities for getting their work out there.

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Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

Oops, looks like I picked up the wrong long-running horror franchise! Well, okay, honestly I just need to take a break from the Puppet Master franchise, especially because we’re about to enter the Dark Age of Full Moon, when the company catastrophically tries to get into the joke. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust. Actually, no, for God’s sake don’t do that! No!)

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Honestly I do think the original Children of the Corn is underrated today, especially by the usual standards of Stephen King adaptations. I probably would never go so far as to claim it’s a dishonored classic, but it is a film I’d recommend to the right person. The premise is fantastic, the setting is classic American gothic, and while the execution has its flaws it’s still got its pluses even there, most particularly in John Franklin’s performance that manages to give film history the most petulant dark messiah ever.  I do think it should have kept the ending of the source material where the protagonists are killed, but…to be honest, I say that about everything. Also the plot is not the most fertile ground for a string of sequels, but it was the ’80s and ’90s so we got them anyway.

…which is why calling it 666 does seem like they’re actually calling it film number 666 as a joke about how many damn sequels every horror movie got back then.

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For what I suspect is the first time in the series someone actually willingly goes to Gatlin, Nebraska. A college-aged woman, Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), arrives searching for her birth mother, about whom she knows nothing except that she was a member of the child-cult that murdered all of the adults in Gatlin. She finds that Gatlin is still half-abandoned, populated mainly by grown-up cultists and their children, who are at oldest teenagers. Her welcome into town is, naturally, a bizarre one. First she picks up a hitchhiking preacher who mysteriously disappears, shocking Hannah into nearly crashing the car. Next she’s confronted and grilled by Sheriff Cora (Alix Koromzay), who is just old enough to have been a former cult member and who assumes that Hannah is one of apparently many tourists who have read about the “Gatlin Massacre” online and have come to gawk. However, when Cora gets Hannah’s full name off her driver’s license, her attitude suddenly changes and she graciously takes Hannah to the nearby hospital.

In an all but deserted hospital filled with equipment that hadn’t been touched in many years and institutionalized ex-cult members, the only above-35 adult—indeed, the only actual medical professional—Hannah encounters is ”Doc” (Stacy Keach!). (I think the film is subtly laying out that ”Doc” is Burt from the first film. There’s one flaw with that theory that I’ll get into later, but having a somewhat mysterious doctor character who is the right age, who is very invested in what happens in Gatlin, and who Isaac recognizes be Burt just makes too much sense). After being checked out by Doc, Hannah is accosted by a mental patient in the hospital, Cora’s brother Jake (William Prael), who tries to warn her about Isaac but unfortunately he takes the ”ranting would-be killer” approach. In fact, Jake’s earnest if deranged attempt to warn Hannah backfires so badly she ends up in Isaac’s hospital room, where he’s waking up as if in response to Hannah’s presence.

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And…well, he is! According to a prophecy from the cult’s god, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, Hannah, as the first female child born to any cult members, is meant to have sex with the first male child, which will…hm, result in something unspecified but really bad! Fresh and rosy from his coma, Isaac quickly takes control of the town, with apparently little resistance. Hannah at least realizes her quest has become much more complicated. Can she trust her biological mother, Rachel (Nancy Allen!) or the cute guy who has happily come to her aid Gabriel (Paul Popowich)? Who exactly is supposed to ”help” Hannah fulfill the prophecy? And is it too late to stop the return of not only Isaac, but He Who Walks Behind The Rows? (Spoiler: it totally is!)

Anyway, Children of the Corn 666 is not a particularly good film, but it’s a pretty good sequel, if that makes sense. Granted I might be biased since I’m coming right off the Puppet Master series, and really as a connoisseur of bad horror movie franchises in general, but I was impressed just how faithful to the original film this sequel is and how it genuinely tries to—shock—build on the first film’s story. First there’s the vague presentation of Doc as Burt. I mean, it is possible I’m off-the-mark because Isaac accuses Burt of taking Rachel away from Gatlin when in the first film the girl he rescues is actually named Sarah, but even if it’s a mistake by the screenwriter it doesn’t dispel the theory. Then there’s   Isaac being shaken and disgusted when he feels he has to personally kill a ”heretic”, a nice bit of characterization referring back to Isaac’s squeamishness being the reason for his original downfall. However, even that’s ruined by the decision to turn it into a goofy gore moment where the human body can apparently get cut apart as easily as paper mache.

Plus, in a confrontation between Isaac and Hannah, there is this fantastic exchange:

“Did you kill my father?
He sacrificed his life to a power greater than himself.
He Who Walks Behind The Rows?
No.  Me.”

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And, generally, I want to give this movie kudos for having a genuinely good premise for a sequel to a movie that’s closer to the Highlander end of the scale for films that could spawn natural concepts for sequels. Exploring the aftermath one generation later is a really strong idea, and I like some of the implications the film hints at, particularly that most of the surviving cult members of the Children of the Corn either stayed in town or ended up so damaged they were institutionalized, albeit in a hospital that should really look into novel ways of restraining their patients…like putting them in rooms with the doors locked.

So, yeah, there’s a surplus of the goofy quirks you expect from movies like this. Like how the hell Cora managed to grab Hannah’s keys from her own ignition without her noticing. Or what the hell is going on with the preacher’s ghost (was it even a ghost, or was he alive and inexplicably teleported from Hannah’s car and got killed in Gatlin later for no reason?). Or how Jake stole Jason Vorhees’ convenient teleportation powers? Or why Hannah seems to know who He Who Walks Behind The Rows is at least halfway through the film but demands to know what He Who Walks Behind The Rows is in the film’s climax? Or…well, you get the idea.

Overall the movie doesn’t delve into ”ooh, it’s all a mystery” territory like seemingly almost every contemporary low-budget horror movie on Netflix; there’s a few vague things like Doc’s identity (but he’s totally Burt, you guys!) or what exactly He Who Walks Behind The Rows is trying to achieve by masquerading as Gabriel (beyond the obvious pulling-a-Omen), but nothing that gets in the way of understanding the plot. What does muddle the proceedings, though, is such lazy horror movie scares like the ghost-maybe-or-not hitchhiking preacher or the scars from one or two slashed scenes, if not whole subplots.

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But there are bigger issues that get in the way too. Once he’s revealed, the mysterious, seemingly all but omnipotent big bad of the entire franchise, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, comes across as just another ’90s wisecracking horror villainalthough his treatment of Isaac, especially his succinct command, “Get on your knees, bitch”, does seem like a poignant allegory for the Old Testament God’s relationship with his most loyal followers. Still, making He Who Walks Behind The Rows a second-rate Freddy Krueger does take the potential epicness completely out of the long-waited confrontation between a tragic fanatical yet somehow reluctant disciple and his insane, bloodsoaked god. It’s all enough to make you wish Stephen King would do a ”reverse adaptation” and make the premise of this film into a novel.

All that said, as far as low-budget, straight-to-video, late-stage sequels to franchises that have been milked to bone, it’s honestly better than it should be. In fact, it makes me reluctant to go back to Puppet Master. Damn my obsessive completionist-ism!

 

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Retro Puppet Master (1999)

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After my write-up about Curse of the Puppet Master, which was supposed to be the beginning of the series’ descent into awfulness but instead I found it to be perfectly okay, I thought the series had drilled into my head much like the aptly-named Tunneler and filled me with sympathy for Charles Band’s most beloved creations. Luckily, Retro Puppet Master came along and showed me that, no, it’s still possible not to like a Puppet Master movie.  Oh, Sutekh as my witness, is it possible.

Now the idea is actually rather brilliant, and manages to work from both a storytelling and marketing viewpoint. Aside from a brief flashback in II, which was part of more scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, we don’t really know much about what Andre Toulon was doing before World War II or how he learned the ability to bring puppets to sentient life. Do a movie about that! But the puppets we know and adore weren’t created until the events of III. So let’s have an earlier set of killer, intelligent but more primitive looking puppets we can sell to our fans!

The execution…well, let me put it this way for those of you who have been following along. Retro Puppet Master makes Puppet Master 4 look like Puppet Master III.  

Our “lost episode” begins with Andre Toulon stopping for the night at an abandoned inn on the German-Swiss border…in 1944.  That’s five years after he committed suicide in California according to the original film (and, putting aside the sliding timescale of Andre Toulon’s escape from Nazi Germany and death which has been sliding since II, you’d think by 1944 the Nazis would have much bigger concerns than just learning the secret recipe for making a living puppet). While Toulon scrounges for food and talks to the puppets, Blade somehow discovers the damaged head of another puppet that Toulon identifies as Cyclops – and by “somehow” I mean his discovery is conveyed by Blade waving his hookhand at the camera and Cyclops’s head rolling on the floor from nowhere. Toulon admits that Cyclops was one of several puppets he had before he created them, and goes on to tell the tale of what happened in 1904. Hopefully Toulon’s recounting includes a description of this frilly ensemble we see his younger self wearing…

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Seriously, I think that’s too many frills even for someone from 1704, much less 1904.

And, yes, that’s Greg Sestero pre-The Room wearing that costume that would provoke homophobic slurs from Richard Simmons. If I remember his account of working on the movie from “The Disaster Artist” correctly, he got cast largely because his mother was French, meaning he could sound convincingly French. That makes sense, since “sounding French” is 95 percent of Andre Toulon’s character here.

Anyway, after a performance at a high-class theater in Paris, Toulon meets an audience member, Ilsa, whose overprotective father is the Swiss ambassador to France. In a twist of fate, he also encounters and saves an old man who appears to just be a victim of a random mugging. In reality, he’s a 3,000-year old sorcerer from Egypt who stole the secret of creating life from the Elder God Sutekh, who has marked him for death. This was a vital move because apparently the only thing standing between Earth and conquest by the Elder Gods are weaponized puppets (although Puppet Master 5 does see Sutekh being destroyed with the help of puppets, so…well played, Charles Band, well played).

Before killing himself as a grand gesture to “protect” himself from being a victim of Sutekh’s, the sorcerer teaches a skeptical Toulon how to bring one of his puppets to life, which he does using the consciousness of a deceased beggar Toulon had befriended. Unfortunately, Toulon doesn’t have much time enjoying his quasi-godhood before he becomes the target of Sutekh’s undead minions, whose powers include killing people with bad special effects and pointlessly repeating each other’s statements and wearing snazzy sunglasses.

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Unfortunately, Toulon’s life goes très mal after becoming a sorcerer’s apprentice. Ilsa has one more awkward and supposedly romantic encounter with Toulon before her father’s henchman whisks her away and practically imprisons her at the embassy. Then Sutekh’s goons murder all of Toulon’s assistants, who conveniently give him the final ingredient needed to bring all of his puppets to life: Blade (not to be confused with non-retro Blade), Pinhead (not to be confused with…you get the idea), Six Shooter, Drill Sergeant, and Dr. Death.

The goons attack Toulon, but luckily they don’t see the puppets get out of Toulon’s suitcase, or approach them from the sides. Perhaps vision among the undead is usually poor. After that skirmish, Toulon decides, rather than risk being blamed for the deaths of his assistants, to leave Paris. However, he’s forced to backtrack when the goons kidnap Ilsa, which turns out to be an effective tactic even though Toulon and Ilsa spent about five minutes of screentime together, and none of them showed Ilsa and Toulon sharing a tender, erotic moment amidst candles and silky sheets. (Honestly, not taking advantage of Greg’s…assets is one way in which this is actually a worse movie than The Room).

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The final battle unfolds on the train back to Paris. Toulon finally saves Ilsa and kills Sutekh’s goons by…having the puppets flank them again while Toulon confronts them head-on. But the fact that the goons fall for the exact same tactic again is somewhat more believable than Ilsa only being slightly discomforted by being kidnapped by supernatural beings and rescued by a man she had a brief, mildly flirtatious relationship who happens to have a small brigade of killer puppets. It’s tru wuv. 

Of course, the happy ending here is somewhat diminished knowing that Ilsa will end up shot to death by a Nazi officer, her consciousness or soul or whatever transferred into the wooden body of a leech-vomiting puppet, and then slowly burned to a second death by a redneck matron. And that Toulon will bite a bullet, get resurrected, and end up an insane stalker mummy killed by his own beloved creations.

As for the retro puppets…Toulon tells the current puppets that their final fate is a tale for another time.  In other words, they joined Camille, Torch, and Rick in the giant black hole that rests in the center of Puppet Master continuity.

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I will admit that Retro Puppet Master may not be the worst movie on Greg Sestero’s resume. I mean, it is from Full Moon Video’s infamous Romanian years with stilted lines delivered from Romanian actors and bad dubbing being abundant, but on a technical level it’s…a film, a statement that can’t be made with 100% confidence about The Room, enjoyable as it is. Nonetheless, the puppetry is a stepdown from even the lows of Curse of the Puppet Master, with the puppets not even appearing to be on the same dimension as their human costars. Plus all the show’s characters are so flat that you would be hard-pressed to think of adjectives to describe Ilsa beyond, say, “female”, or “human.”

Even though Charles Band seems to have wanted the puppets to be very small superheroes from the start, the films that have the puppets as heroes tend to be a wash. Retro Puppet Master is definitely no exception. There’s a hint that the puppets aren’t too happy about being people transferred into small artificial bodies, but it’s barely even suggested. The darkness lurking behind Toulon is nowhere in evidence like it was in the more memorable Puppet Master III. It’s almost as if the series has lost its horror roots, despite the clearly menacing nature of its stars.

But, hey…at least this movie wasn’t 95% footage from previous installments!  Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)

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I will at least admit that this film has the best cover of the series. It’s creepy, it’s unexpected, and it’s actually relevant to what happens in the movie!

The film itself…well, it has a rep for being the “beginning of the end” for the series. And it did come out in the late ’90s, when Charles Band’s media empire was beginning to slip off of its mom-and-pop rental store throne. The very fact that Curse of the Puppet Master itself wasn’t supposed to be – originally the plan was for a trilogy of films where the Puppets face off against the classic Universal monsters, but presumably that proved too ambitious for Full Moon’s dwindling resources – is a testimony to Full Moon starting to be, well, eclipsed in this era.

It’s also true that the puppetry in this film, no longer handled by David Allen Productions, just isn’t nearly as good as it had been. The puppets’ movements no longer look fluid, with one scene where Tunneler and Blade are supposed to be walking looking like they’re levitating across the room. Also when Blade kills shots of him unconvincingly slashing at the air are just interspersed with shots of his victim struggling and showing facial wounds. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t play the same trick twice in the movie.

And yet, it’s really not that bad…

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I mean, okay, the movie’s plot is best described as a cliche casserole, combining the Instant Love Interest/Sex Partner, Inexplicable 20-Something Bullies, and even thunderstorms taking place during the movie’s first kill and the climax. But honestly the way it uses the core concept of little killer puppets and its antagonist is pretty interesting, more so than their purely heroic (and baffling) turn in 4 and 5.

The puppets end up in the care of Professor Magrew and his daughter Jane, who operate a puppet museum/show. In true Puppet Master tradition, there’s no explanation as to how the Puppets got there, except that Magrew found them at an auction. Prof. Magrew’s last assistant Matt mysteriously vanished – or so he tells the obviously corrupt local sheriff, but in reality he was the victim of Magrew’s so far failed experiments to transfer a human’s consciousness fully into a new puppet. Poor oblivious Robert, a gas station attendant who is for some reason constantly tormented by said 20-Something Bullies, is enlisted by Magrew as his new assistant when Magrew discovers that he has a knack for woodcarving. Robert, who moves in with the Magrews (and promptly has sex with Jane; how rude!), is not really taken aback when Magrew introduces him to the Puppets. A bit more worrying to him than sentient puppets with obvious means to kill are the dreams Robert starts having of turning into a puppet himself.

curseofthepuppetmaster2(Wait, you ask yourself, did Prof. Magrew learn how to create new puppets using human minds from Toulon’s research? Were Toulon’s notes auctioned off too? If so, does that mean the existence of living, sentient puppets is kind of public knowledge, which is why Robert isn’t really freaking out over this? But anyway the transference of a human mind or soul or whatever to a new puppet isn’t anything like what happens in III. So how did Prof. Magrew figure it out? Was his doctorate in occult puppetry? Did he also find Sutek, or at least communicated Sutek before he got killed in 5?  But what happened to Rick anyway? Did he just auction off the puppets? What an asshole! Or maybe this movie takes place after II, in which case, whatever happened to Camille? And speaking of that, Leech Woman is back, even though she was thoroughly destroyed in II! But whatever happened to Torch? And plus..)

[For consideration of these questions and more, please refer to my upcoming book, “Hand Inside the Puppet Head: The (Dis)Continuities of the Puppet Master Series,” from Oxford University Press.] 

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Because the main plot doesn’t allow for many warm bodies to slice up and drill into, Robert and Jane have a violent run-in with the 20-Something Bullies, whose leader retaliates by breaking into the Magrew house and attempting to rape Jane, until Pinhead drives him off. Magrew manages to follow the bully leader in his truck (even though the leader had too much of a lead in his car, but that’s the least of this movie’s logic holes) and sics Blade and Tunneler on him.

Jane later admits to her father that she’s fallen in love with Robert. This leads into one of my favorite moments, as Magrew tries to explain why she shouldn’t delve into her new relationship without coming clean. He says, in perhaps one of the most awkward conversations a father can have with a daughter, “If he were to leave…I’m just trying to say…I’m trying to say I don’t want you to get attached to him. Like if I were to…murder him for some occult purpose…or some similar scenario.” (Okay, I made that last part up, but the rest is real!).

The sheriff, already suspicious of Magrew, finds out that the bully leader wanted to attack Jane and goes to confront the professor. Unfortunately, that goes about as well as expected, especially because Magrew has sent Jane off on a pretext and is going about his plans to put Robert’s consciousness into the puppet Robert has been working on.

The puppet that’s…metallic and electronic…even though Robert’s talents have been clearly established to be woodworking…

Wait, I’m going to defend this movie! Honest!

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So the film is admirably downbeat. Professor Magrew turns out to be pretty much insane, believing that he can engineer a new species that will be free from humanity’s more animalistic impulses, and convinced that he’s doing Robert quite a favor. Magrew even succeeds in transferring Robert’s essence into the new puppet body, but the Puppets immediately turn on a disbelieving Magrew (disbelieving probably because he too is wondering why they waited until after it was too late to save Robert to mutiny or, hell, why they didn’t betray him after what he did to his last assistant), and Jane arrives just in time…to see her father hacked up by Blade and then ruthlessly finished off by Robert, the man she fell in love with, despite her pleas.

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This might sound like watching this franchise has finally broken me and turned me mad like poor Professor Magrew, or that my expectations have gotten even lower, but honestly the film’s villain and conflict are pretty well thought-out elements. Predictable as the plot is, there are hints dropped in the dialogue, particularly when Magrew and Robert have a heart-to-heart about the 20-Something Bullies and Magrew remarks that people always seem to be more animal than angel, about Magrew’s deranged philosophy. There’s also a good but easy to miss moment that speaks well of the acting chops of George Peck, who played Professor Magrew. As Blade hacks away at the sheriff, Magrew is laughing with delight – but then, slowly, he closes his eyes and bows his head, as if praying for forgiveness. That one scene suggested as much about Magrew’s motives as any of his dialogue, and was a small part that was genuinely…dare I say it?…really smart.

Also, intentional or not, it’s interesting how much Magrew fails in this movie, even when he wins. Sure, he essentially “killed” Robert and reduced him to a puppet, like he planned. However, it is puppet-Robert, the supposed culmination of his idealistic theory, who kills him without hesitation and remorse and refuses to extend to him the same mercy he showed even to the bully leader earlier. In trying to distill human nature down to its best elements, he only, through his own cruelty, took a decent person and turned him into a monster.

So I do want to give the movie props for having small but much appreciated moments like that, although it’s spoiled by things like how Puppet-Robert looks…

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You know, this movie might actually have a message about the futility of utopian schemes for improving human nature, especially when those schemes rely on violence and depriving individuals of their free will and…oh my God is that a rejected monster from 1960s’ Doctor Who?!?!

Next time, we get a prequel, which will at least spare me from bitching about the many, many, many continuity problems…or will it?!

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 8-9

So I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll just dwell on the same topics.  There’s only so much to be said about Batman & Robin the film, and like how Michael Jan Friedman must have struggled with stretching the movie’s sparse plot out into a book, it’s tricky to not return to some of the same ground in writing this book up.

That said, yeah, even though Michael Jan Friedman is a good writer, this book does more to show why Batman & Robin is an even worse interpretation of the Batman mythos than Batdude and Throbin.

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For instance, there’s more clumsy juggling of “Mr. Freeze the tragic villain” with “Mr. Freeze the punster.”

Fries and his wife were playing with a puppy in a field somewhere.  Upstate New York, he thought – or was it New Hampshire?  It was the height of summer, judging by the brightness of the light and the cut of their clothes.  What was the dog’s name again?  He thought for a moment.  Sunshine?  Sunspot?  Something like that.  It was getting harder and harder for Freeze to remember such things.

Notice the subtle differentiation between “Fries” and “Freeze”?  As if Mr. Freeze no longer even sees himself as the normal human being he used to be?  That’s a legitimately good character moment, but it’s all followed by…

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Frosty, “but I got something here you might want to see.”  He held out a newspaper clipping.  Without a word, Freeze lifted his gun and fired.  In a flash, Frosty had frozen solid, still grasping the clipping.  “I hate it when people talk during the movie,” he muttered.

I’m not saying you can’t have actual characterization, much less the occasional poignant moment, alongside old-school camp.  Look at “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” series, which embraced Batman’s goofy Silver Age post but still had effective, genuinely moving moments like the members of the Doom Patrol, who had become cynical and washed-up superheroes, choosing to sacrifice their own lives to save a group of strangers.  Like a lot of good writing, it’s a delicate balancing act, one that’s completely overturned with a barrage of crappy puns coming from an interpretation of a villain the audience is supposed to feel sorry for.  Imagine if Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past went around telling Xavier, “Well, that’s why we’re…polar opposites.

But lets move on before I churn out a whole treatise about this.  Mr. Freeze is planning to steal a diamond being exhibited at some charity gala that will be hosted by Bruce Wayne, but of course the whole thing is a trap.  By a cosmic coincidence, the gala has a botanical theme, and it’s where Poison Ivy chooses to make her true debut, appearing on stage like in the movie à la Marlene Dietrich coming out of the gorilla costume in Blonde Venus. 

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Naturally right away her pheromone magic works on Bruce Wayne and every other dude in attendance.

“Hi there,” said the woman, lifting the man’s chin with a slender forefinger. She winked at him. “And, er, you are…?” he sputtered. “Poison,” she said, smiling. “Poison Ivy.” Poison Ivy, Batman thought, trying to focus on her features. But it wasn’t easy. He left like a man who had drunk a quart of love passion.

Poison Ivy appears as one of the flower-themed girls up for auction. This might be a chance to make some commentary about objectification and Poison Ivy’s rage against men like Prof. Woodrue, but…no, it’s all about Batman and Robin already starting to fight over Ivy by trying to outbid each other, even though it basically means that Bruce Wayne is trying to outbid Bruce Wayne. We don’t really know why Ivy is bothering with all this, aside from the fact that the script wanted her to be there to meet Mr. Freeze. Again, I have to wonder how strictly Michael Jan Friedman was required to stick to the script.

Oh, and I neglected so far to mention one of the most important characters in Batman & Robin.

Then, out of nowhere, Gossip Gerty made a face and asked, “Is it getting nippy in here?”

Does Gossip Gerty get more screentime than Commissioner Gordon in the movie?  Let’s just assume, yes, yes she does.

Anyway, Mr. Freeze crashes the gala and confiscates the diamond from Poison Ivy, who falls in love at first sight.  The feeling is not mutual for Mr. Freeze, who turns out to be completely immune to her pheromones.

“Let me guess,” he said haughtily, dispassionately. “Plant Girl? Vine Lady? Miss Moss?”

I have to admit again, I actually liked that bit…although like with Bane getting drafted as Poison Ivy’s muscle it does hint toward the script’s odd refusal to let Poison Ivy be much of a real villain in her own right, as opposed to the super-serious menace of this movie’s Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze also leaves Poison Ivy with a snowglobe.  Inside is a miniature Gotham with the words “Welcome to Gotham City.”   No, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to welcome a newcomer to Gotham City than by having their super-criminals leave souvenirs to their victims.

Regardless of what I think about the tendency of most of the Burton and the Nolan movies to have at least pairs of supervilllains, teaming up Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy does make more sense than putting together Man-Bat and the Mad Hatter, or Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow (which actually was the plan for the unmade Batman Triumphant). They’re both from the minority of genuinely superpowered members of Batman’s rogues gallery, and as the book itself points out they’re both “elemental.” Plus thematically putting the villain who symbolizes lust and passion with a villain who is a mournful, tragic figure yet believes himself to be dead to emotion does generate some creative currency. I’m iffier on the idea of making Poison Ivy an obsessed fan of a supervillain; shoving her into a spot that better fits Harley Quinn, in other words. i mean, from the very beginning, even though Poison Ivy’s origin has seen a lot of changes, she’s generally been about being a woman who has been hurt by men or a male-dominated society and using sex appeal to force her own way. But I can still see a romantic obsession based on admiration of another’s ruthlessness and inhumanity working, you know, or at least working if this wasn’t Batman & Robin.

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Enough of that, though, as Batman and Robin pursue Mr. Freeze we get the real relationship that drives the story:  the partnership of Batman and Robin, or rather Batman having to put up with Robin’s perpetual motion machine of whining:

“You know,” Dick went on, “in the circus, the Flying Graysons were a team. We had to depend on each other. Each of us had to trust the others to do their parts or we were finished. That’s what whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa the only way to win is by counting on someone else.”

I may have taken some liberties with the text there, but you get the gist.

At least we are left with this,

Bruce smiled tautly. “Be reasonable. You couldn’t even keep your mind on the job at hand. All you could think about was Poison Ivy.” Dick exploded – at least partly…

Hehehehehehehehehehe.  Oh come on, like you don’t think that’s intentional.

Well, we can’t possibly follow that up, so let’s breeze…or should I say, freeze through the rest: Mr. Freeze gets captured and sent to Arkham Asylum, while Barbara shows us that she’s even more of a Strong Independent Woman (TM).  We learn she knows judo and can handle a motorcycle, so it’s totally not out of the blue that she can be an effective vigilante fighting against superpowered lunatics!

Oh well, at least Michael Jan Friedman got away with not having to mention the Bat Credit Card.

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Holidays

My Favorite Christmas Special: It’s a Bundyful Life

I swear I ain’t got nothing against Christmas, but I do have a lot of animosity toward Christmas entertainment.  It’s not just the saccharine yet vague moralizing, although that is part of it (especially when I’m subjected to traditional Christmas music), but how all the things that really define most people’s Christmases are ignored or at least whitewashed with a sugary paste.  You know, things like the orgy of consumerism in the name of a holiday supposedly commemorating the birth of a man who urged his followers to give away all of their possessions, or being forced to spend your time off work or school with people you’re connected to only through accidents of biology.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a Christmas special that is more on the puppies and rainbows side, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (although even that dealt with Christmas-time consumerism), but…I have to say, my own favorite Christmas special of all time was from Married…with Children, an epic two-parter titled “It’s a Bundyful Life.”

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At least it does start off happy, with eternally cursed working man Al Bundy achieving a rare victory where, thanks to setting up a special Christmas club account at the bank, he can actually adequately provide for his family.  “So in addition to our annual Christmas feast at Denny’s, this year we’re getting presents,” he gloats.  Maybe in the United States’ current economy such jokes have a little too much bite in them, but I always liked the North Korean-style level of poverty that became more and more part of the show’s humor.  It just helps the image of the Bundys’ existence as the Dark Mirror Universe version of pretty much every late 20th century happy middle-class family sitcom.  Helping that image is that neighbor Marcy, distressed that her husband has ditched her for the entire holiday for his overnurturing mother, comes to the Bundys for sympathy.  When Al mocks her as always, Peg expresses some…less than shining sympathy.  “Do you know how many people with lives a lot better than hers commit suicide this time of year?”  Peg asks Al.  Indeed, this is what my loved ones have to remind themselves of.

Peg advises her to have fun at her office party, which happens to be at Al’s bank, even without her husband around.  Unfortunately, when Al is late, Marcy had already taken Peg’s advice too far and we end up with Evidence #7818 as to why Married…with Children’s Marcy Rhodes deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest characters in American sitcom history.

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More than just an obvious take on It’s a Wonderful Life, “It’s a Bundyful Life” is a riff on the age-old sitcom trope of where the beleaguered patriarch of the family just can’t fulfill the materialistic desires of his family, but the family get their presents at the end regardless, or they discover “the true meaning of Christmas” (hint: it actually isn’t Jesus), or they find something else that gives them perspective like a stray dog or a homeless family.  It is, after all, what The Simpsons did with their first televised episode, and they were more straightforward about it than you might expect.  What I love about this special is that it doesn’t even hint at the slightest possibility that sentimentalism could win out over materialism.   As Kelly wisely puts it, “Christmas without presents is like Thanksgiving without pizza.”   The closest the Bundy family comes to a kind moment is when they decide to reciprocate Al’s upcoming gift-giving by “regifting” his own possessions (in a rare moment of mental clarity, Kelly decides to wrap up Al’s toothbrush, since he never uses it).   Meanwhile Al is either genuinely terrified of how his wife and children might retaliate, or afraid of failing even the smallest crumb of responsibility as the Bundys’ breadwinner, or both.  “Daddy is not stupid enough to really believe that you love him,” Peg admonishes her children when they try to curry gift-giving favor with Al.

Of course, the situation does call for a whacky sitcom plan.  This being Married…With Children, Al’s zany scheme involves starting a fake day care business and keeping the children imprisoned.  It does make you ponder Bud and Kelly’s upbringing.  

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Of course, like almost all money-making sitcom schemes it doesn’t work , but the whole episode is just a stretched-out set up to Part 2 – blatantly so, which is the big flaw with the special.  This does,, however, allow the second part to jump right to business.  Al shocks himself while trying to fix some Christmas lights (the eternal bane of clumsy American dads) and meets his reluctant, and indeed outright horrified, guardian angel, played by Sam Kinison.

For those of you who were not culturally conditioned in the ’90s, Sam Kinison was a Pentecostal preacher-turned-comedian who, tragically, died of a car accident in 1992.  He tends to get confused with Bobcat Goldthwait, because…well, they have similar heights and builds, and their distinctiveness comes from voice quirks, I guess.  Detractors to Sam Kenniston might say that his style was his enraged shouting and screeching, but honestly he had a working class aura that perfectly fits the gritty and militantly anti-suburbanite feel of Married…With Children to a ‘T’ standing for ‘trash.’

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From this point on, the show is actually surprisingly faithful if succinct in its retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Al was never born and Peg married a businessman named Norman Jablonski, but (okay, they just didn’t want to or couldn’t build a new set, what do you expect) they live in the same house and Bud and Kelly were still conceived the way they are in reality – more or less.  Actually, everything is reversed.  Peg is a strict but loving mother who actually enjoys cooking, Kelly is a chaste poet and college student, and Bud is old-fashioned and chivalric.  They don’t demand anything for Christmas, but Norman does promise that they will be moving into a mansion.  Hey, it’s still the ’90s, so upgrading from a two-floor house in the Chicago suburbs to a mansion isn’t completely unbelievable.

And maybe I’m reading way too much into what is just an episode of a notoriously crass sitcom, the lowest of all entertainment genres (at least until reality TV became commonplace), but I don’t think the joke is completely that this is a mirror universe of the Bundys (or the Bundys are the mirror universe version of the Jablonskis).   Peg Wanker Jablonski is chained to her stove and her kids’ schedules in a way Peg Bundy would find disgusting.  Kelly is (she’ll admit) “frigid” and completely unwilling to indulge in the pleasures of the life limiting how much even as a poet she can be said to truly live.  Finally, Bud, instead of futilely objectifying women, now holds them up as fragile beings whose honor has to be constantly defended, which subjects them to as much objectification but precludes Bud from perhaps ever having a sexual relationship with them even more than his original peeping tom ways.    In sum, the Jablonskis are far more successful and more loving toward each other than the Bundys, but they’re also much less free in the purest, most libertine sense.

Hey, if by chance you’re writing your PhD dissertation on Married…with Children, feel free to cite me!

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Anyway, Al comes to a slightly more simple conclusion than I did.  “Look at them.  They’re happy.  Not a care in the world.  You think I want that to happen after all they put me through?  I want to live!”  he tells Sam.  Thus we see Al deciding to choose life out of spite.

I don’t know about you all, but that’s a far more valuable moral than even anything the original It’s a Wonderful Life had to offer.

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